By Bridget Huber
Many anti-poaching strategies aim to kill or jail hunters — but this project puts them to work
Editor's note: This article was produced in collaboration with the Food & Environment Reporting Network, a nonprofit investigative news organization.
CHAMA DISTRICT, Zambia — On the banks of the Luangwa River in eastern Zambia, a small group of men creeps through dry grass with guns raised. A half-dozen hippos laze in the water, antelope graze on the opposite bank, and, farther off, an elephant is drinking water. The men have killed hundreds of animals on these grounds. One by one, they take aim, then fire. The blasts echo and send up acrid white smoke.
But today, there are no bullets in their guns. The men, and scores of others in the Luangwa Valley, have given up poaching for farming. They’ve repurposed their weapons by loading them with a nonlethal mix of crushed chili and gunpowder. They use the spicy blasts to drive off animals that come to raid their fields.
The men are members of an environmental organization that works with two groups sometimes seen as obstacles, if not enemies, to conservation: poachers and farmers. The nonprofit, Community Markets for Conservation, or COMACO, convinces poachers to hand over their guns and pursue alternative livelihoods such as beekeeping, vegetable gardening and carpentry, along with farming. It also confronts the more insidious threat of habitat loss by helping farmers transition to sustainable agriculture and makes it worth their while by buying their crops at above-market prices.
As poaching has reached dire levels across the continent, some countries have instituted “shoot to kill” policies to stop poachers, while private anti-poaching militias patrol swaths of land in others. At the same time, governments and international law-enforcement agencies are working to get tough on wildlife crime by coordinating efforts and stiffening penalties. Yet some conservationists argue that the international response has been weighted too heavily toward law enforcement, and is overlooking the role that communities who live closest to wildlife can play in protecting these species. A hard-line approach to poaching can alienate or even harm these would-be allies; a recent crackdown in Tanzania was halted after accusations that anti-poaching troops murdered, raped and tortured innocent people.
"There's a strong desire from the international community to do something about this," said Rosie Cooney, of the International Union for Conservation of Nature. "Quite often that gets translated into putting more money into enforcement agencies. But unless they're responsive to the people on the ground, it can make things worse, rather than better."
William Banda, a regional coordinator with COMACO, saw firsthand the limits of a law-enforcement approach when he patrolled for poachers in protected areas as a wildlife scout working for the government. “People were being apprehended, prosecuted, sent to jail,” he said. “A month after they’d get out, you’d find that same person continuing with poaching. Why? Law enforcement cannot answer the problems people are facing in the communities.”
John Scanlon, the secretary-general of the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES, which has been at the center of efforts to coordinate the international response, said law enforcement has been emphasized recently because poaching is at a crisis point. Local communities will be instrumental in protecting wildlife in the medium and long term, he said, but only if the animals survive the current bloodbath. “If I’m walking across the street and I get hit by a car, the first thing I want someone to do is stop the bleeding,” he said. “Once I’ve recovered, then I can think about whether I need to get more exercise and eat better. Wildlife’s been hit hard, and we need a trauma-based response.”
Peanut butter to end poaching
Edson Zimba was one of the first poachers to turn in his gun and begin working with COMACO more than a decade ago. Before that, he’d supported his family by hunting elephants, buffalo, warthogs and other animals in and around the North Luangwa National Park, a remote reserve a bit larger than Rhode Island.
But over his 20 years as a poacher, he watched animal populations shrink due to overhunting. Each year he had to go deeper into the wilderness, leaving his two wives and eight children to fend for themselves for long stretches. So, when COMACO came to the community and began talking about conserving animals and sustainable farming, it didn’t take him long to get on board. “It upgraded our minds,” he said.
The group also improved his family’s standard of living. After turning in his gun, Zimba received carpentry training and hand tools. He and his family also learned new sustainable-farming methods, which boosted their yields and meant they were able to stop buying expensive synthetic fertilizers. Zimba sells his crops to COMACO and said the family has plenty to eat. He has even bought two grinding mills, one for each wife, used to mill corn for their staple food, nshima, which is similar to polenta. The women have made a small enterprise with the machines, charging locals 4 kwacha (about 50 cents) to grind a tin of corn. “I’m living much better than in the past,” Zimba said.
Once harvested, Zimba’s crops go to COMACO’s food-processing factory in Chipata, the largest city in Zambia’s Eastern Province. The facility produces peanut butter, honey, rice and a hot-cereal mix from crops grown by its farmers, who number about 100,000 in the region. The products are sold under the brand name It’s Wild! at supermarkets across the country.
Individual farmers, who organize themselves into producer groups and cooperatives, adopt sustainable techniques — they fertilize with compost, incorporate trees into their farms and minimize tilling. Those who follow the guidelines earn a premium price, typically 10 to 20 percent higher than the market rate. To help them comply, and improve food security, COMACO gives loans of seeds, technical assistance and, in some cases, the materials to build poultry houses, wells and efficient stoves.
It’s Wild! had $2.6 million in sales in fiscal year 2013-2014, enough to sustain its own operations, but not the work it does to support farmers, which is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development and other donors. The organization plans to wean itself off foundation support by 2019, said Dale Lewis, COMACO’s founder, an American who has been involved in conservation in the region for 35 years. By becoming a self-supporting business, Lewis hopes, COMACO will avoid the pitfalls of other well-intentioned organizations that hustle to meet shifting donor priorities or move on once aid money is used up. “A business is there to survive and to grow,” he said. “A project is there to spend [donors’\ money and then look for the next project.”
Need vs. greed
The role that poverty plays in poaching is subject to debate, with disagreement over whether poverty drives poaching, is a by-product of poaching or happens alongside poaching in underdeveloped regions where states are weak. Clearly, Asia’s growing financial strength, as well as China’s rising influence in Africa, is helping drive the demand for ivory and rhino horns, while growing urbanization and affluence has also spurred demand for wild game in African cities. And conflict, corruption and weak governance allow illegal wildlife trade to flourish.
Part of the problem is that “poacher” is such a broad term. More....